May 20, 2021

Major controversy erupted Wednesday involving a well-respected journalist and a well-respected journalism school: Nikole Hannah-Jones and the UNC-Chapel Hill Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Hannah-Jones is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from The New York Times. She was the driving force behind The Times’ “1619 Project” that looked at the history of slavery in the U.S. and its impact on America.

Hannah-Jones was supposed to join the school as a tenured professor. But now it appears that her role as Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism will not be tenured, at least for now. Instead, her position will be a fixed-term “Professor of the Practice” with the option of being eligible for tenure within five years.

The News & Observer’s Kate Murphy reported that the school’s dean, Susan King, “said she was told that the UNC-CH Board of Trustees was hesitant to give tenure to someone outside of academia.” King has gone on to say she was disappointed in the decision and worried about how this might affect the school.

But was that really the reason, that she was from “outside of academia?”

Or is it really because of the conservative pushback of Hannah-Jones’ work on the “1619 Project”?

The answer seems obvious to many.

Just recently, the conservative National Review had this headline: “University of North Carolina Disgraces Itself with Latest Faculty Hire.” It used the word “propaganda” to describe the “1619 Project.” The Carolina Partnership for Reform wrote, “This lady is an activist reporter — not a teacher.”

That pushback, and more like it, could have worked its way into this latest decision.

NC Policy Watch’s Joe Killian and Kyle Ingram wrote, “Last summer, Hannah-Jones went through the rigorous tenure process at UNC, King said. Hannah-Jones submitted a package King said was as well reviewed as any King had ever seen. Hannah-Jones had enthusiastic support from faculty and the tenure committee, with the process going smoothly every step of the way — until it reached the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.”

One member of the board, speaking anonymously, told NC Policy Watch that the decision was political.

“The university and the board of trustees and the Board of Governors and the legislature have all been getting pressure since this thing was first announced last month,” the trustee said. “There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight.”

Another trustee said, “There was some discussion about ‘She is not from a teaching background, she is not from academia, so how can she just get a tenured position?’ But if you look at the previous Knight Chairs … these are people who come from the world of journalism. That’s the idea. That’s what the program is and it’s always been that way. So that argument doesn’t really hold water.”

Hussman faculty put out a strongly-worded statement on Wednesday, saying they were “stunned” by the decision and that the failure to give Hannah-Jones tenure is a “concerning departure from UNC’s traditional process and breaks precedent with previous tenured full professor appointments of Knight chairs in our school.”

They went on to say, “We demand explanations from the university’s leadership at all levels. Nikole Hannah-Jones does necessary and transformative work on America’s racial history. The national politicization of universities, journalism, and the social sciences undermines the integrity of and academic freedom within the whole University of North Carolina system.”

Journalist Wes Lowery from CBS News tweeted, “It’s hard to see UNC’s decision to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah Jones as anything other than an attack on press freedom — she is being penalized for producing journalism that powerful people do not like and have worked for years to silence.”

PBS anchor and reporter Yamiche Alcindor tweeted, “UNC’s decision to deny tenure to @nhannahjones is absurd & a reminder of how hard some work to deny the hard truth that is Nikole’s life work & the 1619 Project. She is a Pulitzer Prize winner & a MacArthur genius. What more needs to be said?”

John Eligon of The New York Times tweeted, “Telling the truth about racism always inspires backlash. This absurd decision speaks to the profound power of Nikole’s work.”

Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker called the decision “obscene.”

The failure to give Hannah-Jones tenure sure looks like a political decision based on some people’s disapproval of Hannah-Jones’ work. The decision might placate those people, but this ultimately is a bad look for the school.

King told NC Policy Watch, “Will it be a chilling effect? Will it hurt the reputation of UNC? We’re nationally acclaimed now. That’s what I’m worried about.”

Oh, one more notable point: Hannah-Jones graduated from the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media with a master’s degree in 2003.


The Initiative in Reporting on Race and Criminal Justice at Columbia Lipman Center will provide grants from $30,000 to $45,000 and professional collaboration to four local news organizations for six-month reporting projects focusing on inequalities and abuses in the American criminal justice system. Apply now through June 20.

A captivating interview

Police tape marks a line outside Rigby Middle School following a shooting there earlier this month. (AP Photo/Natalie Behring)

Earlier this month, a sixth-grade girl at a school in the small town of Rigby, Idaho, took a gun out of her backpack and shot two students and a janitor, wounding all three but, thankfully, not killing them. In an exclusive interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” math teacher Krista Gneiting described how she disarmed the young girl.

Gneiting, at first, struggled to comprehend that the shooter was, in her words, “a little girl.”

Gneiting walked up and said, “Are you the shooter?”

Then, Gneiting said, “I just walked up to her and I put my hand over her hand, I just slowly pulled the gun out of her hand and she allowed me to. She didn’t give it to me but she didn’t fight. And then after I got the gun, I just pulled her into a hug because I thought, this little girl has a mom somewhere that doesn’t realize she’s having a breakdown and she’s hurting people.”

Gneiting called 911 and then stayed with the girl.

“After a while, the girl started talking to me and I could tell she was very unhappy,” Gneiting said. “I just kept hugging her and loving her and trying to let her know that we’re going to get through this together. I do believe that my being there helped her because she calmed down.”

Check out the video for the whole story.

Buzbee and the Post

The Washington Post’s always-insightful media critic Erik Wemple writes about new Post executive editor Sally Buzbee in his latest column. Wemple looks at Buzbee’s tenure as the executive editor of The Associated Press for clues on how she might run the Post’s newsroom. Wemple then goes into several detailed examples of the work AP reporters did with Buzbee in charge.

Kathleen Carroll, who preceded Buzbee as the AP’s executive editor, told Wemple, “She’s smart, she listens, and she creates a very collaborative environment, which doesn’t mean she dodges decisions. At the end of the day, she knows what’s hers to do.”

The right call

My Poynter colleague Al Tompkins wrote about how cable news networks CNN and MSNBC handled showing the bodycam video of Andrew Brown Jr. being shot and killed by police while they were attempting to serve an arrest warrant in April. Tompkins wrote that both handled it differently, but “both decisions were thoughtful ones.” Check out his piece for more.

A new column is partnering with The Marshall Project on a new regular column from Keri Blakinger, a staff reporter from The Marshall Project. The column is called “Inside Out” and will cover a variety of topics based on Blakinger’s experience as a criminal justice reporter and someone who was incarcerated. Her columns will address medical care, prison conditions, immigration detention, prison labor and collateral consequences for formerly incarcerated Americans.

Blakinger’s first column will be out today. You can read it at and

Media tidbits

(Courtesy: NBC News)

  • As we approach the one-year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd, NBC News NOW will stream a special tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern called “Can You Hear Us Now?: One Year Later.” It will be hosted by MSNBC’s Trymaine Lee and will feature conversations with former Seattle chief of police Carmen Best; New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb; director, comedian, actor and writer Travon Free; human and civil rights advocate Martin Luther King III; NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson; Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) and more.
  • The Daily Beast Union announced Wednesday that, after a year of negotiations, they have a new contact. Here are the details.
  • Love this story from my Poynter colleague Amaris Castillo: “The news doesn’t set with the sun. What it’s like to be a night-shift journalist.”
  • Slate’s podcast “The Waves” is back today after a hiatus. The pod looks at current stories and how gender plays into those stories.
  • Tom Haberstroh and the very talented Kate Fagan have joined Meadowlark Media — the company started by former ESPNers Dan Le Batard and John Skipper. The Big Lead’s Kyle Koster has the story.
  • The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema with “Chicago Tribune names two food critics to replace one.”

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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